Types of Trauma
When you think, “trauma,” I bet you picture the emergency room in a hospital. Head injuries, blood, stuff like that. While that is definitely trauma, it’s not what we mean in the therapy world. Generally speaking, mental health people speak of two types of trauma nowadays. One is, “big T” trauma, and the other is “little t” trauma, also known as “complex” trauma.
“Big T” Trauma
“Big T” trauma is one discrete event that can be recalled or that someone can tell you about, like experiencing a severe physical injury, being stuck in an elevator or burning building, watching someone get killed, having major surgery, experiencing a life-threatening event, being robbed, being in a natural disaster, or any other type of a dramatic single event.
“Little t”, or “complex” trauma
“Little t”, or “complex” trauma, on the other hand, is the experience of multiple and/or chronic and prolonged emotionally and/or physically distressful events. They are almost always of an interpersonal nature, (e.g., sexual, physical or emotional abuse, war, community violence) they happen early in life, and they almost always occur within a child’s caregiving system.
The reason it is so-called “little t” trauma is because the events that make it up are generally not of the dramatic quality that “big T” trauma is. They can be extreme, as in the case of obvious prolonged child abuse, but they are generally the everyday events of getting yelled at, smacked, lied to, manipulated, betrayed, having your emotional needs minimized, being ignored, or any of the other “normal” experiences of childhood that happen. These experiences often stunt, delay or prevent full and proper development of what is called the “social engagement” part of your nervous system.
Unfortunately, because you are a mammal, and like all mammals, you are a social animal. Therefore you need the “social engagement” part of your nervous system to be up and running or else you are always going to be in “fight or flight” mode. And if that’s the case, you are going to have difficulty relaxing and difficulty letting yourself get emotionally close to people for very long (if at all). You are going to overreact to things. You are going to have difficulty falling asleep easily or sleeping well. You are going to have difficulty concentrating. Very little, if anything, is going to make you genuinely happy. You are going to be susceptible to illness and injury. You are going to have a problem maintaining a positive self-image and high self-confidence, and you are probably going to have difficulty managing your feelings.
How complex trauma can be affecting you
Complex trauma is no joke. Prolonged/chronic emotional distress is rampant, living in the society we do. The fact is, you are probably suffering from it at some level. Children are no exception. They need to be “seen [attuned to], safe, soothed and secure,” in order for their “social engagement system” to come online and to function properly so that they are happy, easygoing, successful adults who can engage in committed, stable relationships. The socialization process as it happens these days occurs in a way that almost invariably produces “little t” trauma and a faulty “social engagement system” for all of us.
You may not be experiencing intrusive thoughts or images like someone with “big T” trauma, but if you have depression, alcoholism, smoking, obesity, physical symptoms such as heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes or liver disease or if you have any of the symptoms I mentioned above, there is a huge chance your body is in “fight or flight” mode due to chronic low-grade emotional distress left over from childhood. This means your body is under assault from stress hormones and that your muscles are literally contracted. (The body contracts when you are protecting yourself.) You are not living your life to the fullest, and your social engagement system needs some TLC.
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